Law Soc and Labour clash over delays

The Law Society went into battle against the Labour Party last week over proposals from Shadow Home Secretary Jack Straw which aim to penalise lawyers for time-wasting before cases come to trial.

Straw called for lawyers to be disallowed costs if cases take too long to prepare. He was launching a campaign to cut the amount of time defendants have to spend on remand.

But the Law Society dismissed Straw's ideas as wrongly targeting lawyers when clients and other agencies are often to blame for delays.

David Hartley, professional policy executive at the society, said: “How do you define responsibility for delay? Delays could be caused by the Crown Prosecution Service, other government agencies or by a client. Any inference that delays are usually caused by lawyers is entirely wrong.” A new system would find it difficult to “point the finger of blame at a particular party”, he added.

Roger Ede, secretary of the Law Society's criminal law committee, said: “Problems caused by clients who fail to keep appointments are not fully appreciated. If they are in custody, it may be difficult to get access.” He added: “Delays in the courts are caused by a myriad of different agencies, from the police to the CPS.”

Ede said good practice guidelines for solicitors preparing a case already exist. And courts can instruct that lawyers receive “enhancements” if their prep-aratory work is of special merit.

A Labour document, Justice Delayed, claims more than 20 per cent of people in prison are waiting trial or sentence and that the waiting time before defendants come to court has steadily risen over the years.

The party is anxious to reduce the long periods which defendants spend in prison before coming to trial.

Straw claimed official targets set for the stages of the judicial process were not being met. And he added that not a single Crown Court had met statutory limits between committal and trial.

He suggested increased judicial overview of case management and called for judges and barristers to avoid lengthy speeches.